It was a case of ‘Girl Power’ at the Opening Meet of the South County Dublin Harriers. Hounds met at Gerry O’Malley’s Batterstown Inn in County Meath, Ireland, and didn’t hang around too long with a healthy field of about fifty followers and an active junior hunt section (that stages its own hunt ball)! Originally founded in 1867, it is the oldest surviving drag hunt in Ireland.
Three young staff ladies were immaculately turned out on three matching grey hunters. Huntsman Grace Kerr and her sister Eve*, who is now studying for an MBA and just back from the USA riding out from huntsman Willie Dunne’s yard in North Carolina and Redfield Farm in New Jersey. (Willie hunts the Middleton Place Hounds in North Carolina.) Grace’s and Eve’s sister Catherine would normally make up the trio but is a nurse in Australia. The final member of the team is whipper-in Eimear Byrne, another fine horsewoman.
The Souths are a smashing pack of mainly home-bred black and tan hounds with voices that can be heard for miles. And there is no cracking of whips and no shouting at hounds. Huntsman Grace, who also hunts the family pack, Mr Kerr’s Beagles, has been hunting the South County since her father Paul, who previously hunted the Kildare Foxhounds, had a hip replacement. She has that wonderful connection with her pack; they continuously look for her attention and she chats quietly to them continuously.
After a check she just blows one call on the hunting horn which tells the pack that it is time to go to work. The Souths are a drag pack, and you could get the strong aroma from the drag in the hunt truck even before they arrived at the meet! There were no shortcuts and no dodging the widest Meath ditches as the drag was expertly laid by another lady, Ally Murphy, riding her former racehorse and point-to-point winner, An Tiora Dall (The Blind Squirrel). He will cross any country as he has hunted all over Ireland. Ally is better known as a professional wedding photographer, point-to-point and pin hooking handler and owner of Quarryland Farm and Cross Country Course.
The advantage of a drag pack is they can run over a preplanned line which makes hunting possible even in over-developed areas such as Leinster. I hunted probably thirty-five years ago with the Souths with the late Ned Hughes and Billy Brannigan from Ballymacarney Stud. The meet was from Myos Pub in Castlenock over open farmland and Farmleigh Estate which was owned by Lord Iveagh at the time, but now owned by the Irish State. I recall also that we had a little too much ‘jumping juice’ in Myos, so we felt no pain all day!
One of the first people at the meet was honorary secretary Tina Keane and John Hanlon, a happy man tucking into a full Irish breakfast while at the same time his eyes glued to the Scotland versus Japan match in the Rugby World Cup. Hunt chairman Kevin Mulvey was not far behind; his wife Bertha is out injured but will be back hunting shortly. I had the pleasure of joining them north of Rome a few years ago hunting with the I du Laghi Hounds which Willie Dunne had hunted.
Also out were Joint Masters Niall Byrne, Liam Brew, and Barry Murphy as well as former Master Aine Doyle and Brendan Osbourne. Libby Sheehy originally from the USA, who runs Springfield Guest House in Celbridge County Kildare, admitted that she was a wee bit nervous.
It was fantastic to see a rescue pony which had been found tied to a post in Dublin inner city. Leila Shannon was hunting the rescued mare, which they named Mary. After some tender loving care she is now hunting away every week, and the pony can really jump. However, she only goes well for Leila, as they have formed such a bond.
Following by car was Desmond Bell, a key part of the hunting team who marshals on the road and is a great ambassador with farmers and road followers. He has also whipped-in to Mr Kerr’s Beagles for over thirty seasons. Also following was Padraic Doyle, Aoife Shannon (Leila’s mother), Sarah Taaffe, daughter of former champion jockey Toss Taaffe, whose son Jamie is a Field Master. Pearse Buckley was sporting his transport company logo on his jumper while Josh who hails from the Philippines was doing a great job as a road steward. Josh also tidies up around the horse boxes, which he been doing for the last eighteen seasons.
Accompanying Ally Murphy, who was laying a challenging line with the drag, were Emer Lynch and Darren Dunne as followers crossed the first line over an extensive range of stubble behind the village. There were plenty of overgrown ditches full of water from the wet weather. The last ditch caused its own problems with Dermot O’Brien’s new mare losing her footing. But she casually walked up the ditch, knee high in water, and found her own way out. A lady who had just purchased a new hunter who refused a few time was greeted by a nameless person calling, “Give her back!” But it was sight to see Grace and Eve Kerr together with Eimear Byrne ride it with style, forward going, and not touching their hunters’ mouths. As one Master remarked, the three girls are a class act.
From there it was out onto the Ballymaglasson road into Leo Murphy’s out farm. Liam Brew’s wife Ailise gave a challenging lead over good strong ditches beginning with a narrow keyhole ditch that took followers across Pheasant Hill Road into Donal Cunningham’s. The followers crossed the Dunboyne to Trim Road into Ally Murphy family farm, Quarryland, where her father Joe was waiting. Masters Niall Byrne and Barry Murphy took over Field Mastering over the cross country fences.
They then crossed into another block of mainly stubble where Master Niall Byrne attempted the impossible and suffered the consequences. Nobody followed! His wife Eileen swapped horses as Colin Barrett’s son Nathan gave Liam Brew a lead over a strong ditch. But Liam is careful to stay on board as he remarked that his wife does not like him falling, which is a good reason to please her! The last line was back to the meet led by Barry Murphy. He reckoned that hounds ran about fourteen miles during the day.
Huntsman Paul Kerr will be back in action after Christmas, but with the way the ladies have stepped up to the mark he may wind up whipping in! The Hunt Ball takes place on New Year’s Eve with a Roaring Twenties theme and music by the 52nd Street Band.
James Norton’s book, The History of the South County Dublin Hunt, launched by former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Charles J. Haughey in 1991 is a great record of the hunt with a comprehensive archive of photos, old and new. It has always been a popular hunt, attracting many followers from Dublin City and suburbs, and quite a number of politicians. Former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Liam Cosgrave and his father, W.T. Cosgrave, former President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, were frequent followers.
Posted November 9, 2019
* Eve is pictured on the back cover of Noel Mullins’ book, The Irish Hunter.
Noel Mullins is a photojournalist and author of The Dublin Horse Show, The Irish Hunter, In Search of the Kerry Beagle, and other books on Irish horse sport.